Caldwell's credits as an actress are no less impressive. The Australian-born leading lady has won Tonys every time she was nominated, one for Best Featured Actress (in Tennessee Williams' Slapstick Tragedy, 1966) and three for Best Actress (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1968; Medea, 1982; and Master Class, 1996). She began her career at Stratford-on-Avon, then moved on to play Cleopatra and other classic roles at Canada's Stratford Festival. She played Ophelia at the Guthrie, Saint Joan in Australia, and finally settled in America after her first Tony win.
Married since 1968 to Whitehead, Caldwell has collaborated with her husband many times. He directed her in Medea (with Judith Anderson as the Nurse) and William Luce's Lillian, and produced Master Class and Caldwell's own production of Park Your Car in Harvard Yard, starring their close friend Jason Robards and Judith Ivey. Caldwell's directorial credits also include Othello with James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer, and Vita & Virginia with Vanessa Redgrave and Eileen Atkins. She and Whitehead have two grown sons.
Whew! No wonder I felt a bit nervous about interviewing these legends by telephone from their home outside New York City. But they couldn't have been nicer or easier to talk to. At 84, Whitehead remains deeply interested in the theater and its future; an award named for him is presented every year to a promising producer by the Commercial Theatre Institute. "We're theater people," Caldwell says in her distinctively seductive voice. "We see an inordinate amount of theater and we spend a lot of time talking about things that are of interest to us. I suppose, if we were plumbers, we'd talk about the new fixtures."
With seven Tonys on the shelf, the couple has seen the awards ceremony change from a quiet, local event to a network TV extravaganza. "It was more of a family affair," Whitehead says of the old days. (His first nomination came in 1956 for producing Bus Stop, which lost Best Play to The Diary of Anne Frank.) "It was an award that everybody respected and enjoyed. As soon as the nationwide broadcasts started, it became more commercialized; it became a television show more than a family meeting."
Caldwell remembers wearing "an afternoon frock" to her first ceremony at the Rainbow Room in 1966. "Ginger Rogers gave all the awards; I don't think they served liquor because everyone had a show that night. I was bowled over to win." The Jean Brodie year, the actress remembers discovering stray black maribou feathers from her Henri Bendel outfit stuck under her arms. The award for Medea was special because it honored a performance directed by her husband. But it was Caldwell's ability to talk really fast that distinguished her acceptance speech for Master Class.
"You're only given 30 seconds," she notes, "and I think that's right. I don't think everybody should feel free to chat on and on. But the people working on a play love hearing their names, so I always try to get in as many names as possible." After the nominations were announced, Caldwell, the odd-on favorite to win for her tremendous performance as Maria Callas, listed everyone she wanted to mention and practiced saying the names faster and faster. "I don't like pieces of paper on stage, so I memorized my list and then raced through it. Some people thought that was so unattractive, but I got all the names in."
Interjects Whitehead, "CBS was unhappy that you stood up there and said nothing but names." Of course, that was the disastrous year in which live and badly edited taped speeches were blended into an unwatchable stew, so CBS should have thanked Caldwell for watching the clock--which allowed McNally to get a word in when Master Class won Best Play. "Exactly!" she says, when reminded that the playwright had been cut off the year before, when Love! Valour! Compassion! won.